Flabbergasting news. Bill Gates – the world’s geek-in-chief, the buttoned-up billionaire founder of Microsoft – has a sense of humour. It’s a little hidden, to be sure. But when it’s revealed the shock of its presence is electrifying. And all the more so because the subject matter for his joke is deeply and famously tricky. I have asked him the same question his wife Melinda was asked when she guest-edited Today on Radio 4 over Christmas: Why are the Gates children (they have a son and two daughters) not allowed to own any products made by Microsoft’s greatest rival, Apple?
Melinda gave the corporate answer when pressed on whether the kids ask for iPods: “Of course they ask,” she admitted, “but they get Windows technology. The wealth from our family came from Microsoft. Why would we invest in a competitor?”
I expected a similar brush-off from Bill. She, after all, is meant to be the human side of the duo. So if she doesn’t play ball on this, he’s hardly going to. He is the programmer, the businessman, the man who thinks of cool as a function of air conditioning. He is one of the world’s richest men but nobody has ever suggested that he is one of the most entertaining.
So what a shock when he pauses for a moment and then delivers a passable straight-faced witticism: “It’s one area where we spoil them.”
Good one, Bill. Few teenagers think Microsoft stuff is better than Apple stuff and he knows that. But he also knows, or has learnt, that to fight this fact head on is to be, as a teenager would say, a loser.
Years ago I interviewed Bill Gates face to face for Today and it was a painful experience. His people were nervous. There were subjects that they wanted off limits. He looked distracted. He said little of interest. So last week when his press man – on the phone from Seattle – announced with ill-concealed pride, “Justin, I have you on speakerphone and I am sitting next to Bill,” I wasn’t expecting an easy half-hour.
I could not have been more wrong. He was a pleasure to speak to. He did not answer every question, but he baulked at none. There is more to Bill Gates than the socially awkward and defensive side that he often shows to the world.
He was particularly blunt on subjects I thought he would shy away from. On guns, for instance, in the wake of the awful school murders in Connecticut, he volunteered this: “I happen to prefer the UK to the US policy on guns.” In other words he wants an almost complete ban – he has none of the cultural closeness to guns that so many other Americans profess. Though he has no optimism that his fellow countrymen will heed him: “I don’t think there’ll be a dramatic change in this area.” And that, from a highly motivated can-do kind of guy, is a warning in itself.
In a world in which the foolish wealthy are only the flick of a button away, Bill Gates stands out. He has a nice house – quite a big house – but he is no playboy. He made his money through being very, very clever and very, very determined. And now he gives it away with the same degree of single-minded rigour.
In fact you could probably say that nothing much has changed Bill. Not the success, not the money. There is something authentic about his understated style, typified by the answer to my question about where his Dimbleby Lecture will start: “Well, I was lucky enough to work in technology and be quite successful…”
At 17, Gates had already written and sold his first computer program to his high school. He got into Harvard with one of the top scores in the application test. While he was there he co-founded Microsoft (with school friend Paul Allen) – so he left the university without bothering to take his degree. It did not hold him back. He was a billionaire at 31 – then one of the world’s richest men. And then in 1994, after the death of his mother, he became one of the world’s greatest philanthropists.
The Gates Foundation and all the work that has flowed from it came from a pretty humble start, at least by a billionaire’s standards. Bill’s father – looking for something to do after the death of his wife – began making his way through the sacks of begging letters that his wealthy son had piled up in a corner of his office. Some of the letters seemed genuine and moving. He gave them to Bill, and Bill wrote cheques.
Now the enterprise is a little bigger: $36 billion was the size of its endowment when last reported at the end of 2012. It’s the GDP of a medium-sized developing nation. It makes a difference.
But sometimes money is not enough. And that is where I start the serious conversation with Bill Gates and he responds for the first time to the nightmare events of the past month or so in Pakistan. The Gates Foundation is one of the biggest funders of the worldwide effort to wipe out polio. The results have been impressive, but there are three countries where it is still endemic and Pakistan is one of them. Tragically, a series of murderous attacks by Islamic militants on health workers has brought the Pakistan effort to a halt in several crucial areas. Little children will develop polio and die or be crippled as a result.
Bill Gates’s response is typical of the man. “I don’t want to underestimate what has happened,” he says. “The violence is a terrible thing. But it has to be overcome.” When I ask how, the question audibly frustrates him:
“You simply persevere. Because you know you are working on something of great importance. People still want to come and vaccinate those children. If we don’t keep pushing on polio then we will end up where we were when we started, with 400,000 children a year being paralysed.”
The details of how this can be done when Islamists stoke suspicions about the effects of vaccination, and when that doesn’t work simply kill the doctors, are for others to work out. Bill provides the engine of determination and cash.
His response reminded me of a story told by someone in the railway industry about Richard Branson when he first set up his train company. Faced with a timetabling problem Branson suggested that the trains might overtake each other. The junior staff looked at each other. Did he not know they were on tracks? Did he perhaps just not care?
The Islamic militants might have met their match in this bespectacled representative of the “great Satan”. He is not interested in failure. He wants his trains to overtake and he’ll leave the details to others. Someone on his staff once told me that the meetings with Bill when something has gone wrong can be brutal in the extreme. “Why have you killed these children? Why have you not tried harder?”
In our interview he was also willing to acknowledge for the first time in public that the calamity in Pakistan might have been inadvertently made worse by the actions of the US. I asked him about the CIA’s use of a fake vaccination programme to trap Osama Bin Laden. Had it been a mistake? That was a view taken by a number of senior US doctors and academics who wrote recently to the White House to protest.
Bill Gates knew about the letter and although he couches his answers in almost painfully cautious language, he made it clear that he agrees with its thrust. Asked directly whether the use of the fake vaccine programme had been a US mistake, he said: “It may have contributed to misunderstanding and confusion… Anything we can do to avoid confusion about the benefits of vaccination, we should do.”
I asked him again and again whether this was a direct criticism and he would not say that it was or that it was not, but it seems to me that his intervention is pretty clear. He doesn’t want a fight with the CIA, but he agrees with those who say that the fake vaccine programme was wrong.
Don’t expect these devilish details to be the subject of much attention in his lectures, though. Bill Gates has bought the right to the big picture. He will make the case – during his time in Britain – for the work on polio and malaria and other childhood diseases of the poorer world, to be redoubled in the years ahead. His goal is huge and genuinely transformative on the scale of the history of humankind: he wants to create the circumstances where children all over the world generally survive beyond the age of five. That, he says, is the key to a better world: “By lifting the burden of disease you are enabling countries to become self-sufficient and you enable parents to have fewer children.”
And in this battle Bill Gates – plainly and clearly and with none of the equivocation that surrounded our chat about Pakistan – comes down on the side of government aid. “The bulk of the money that helps the world’s poorest comes from the generosity of rich country tax-payers. There is no substitute for that.”
To be sure he wants to bolster it with more cash from his very wealthy friends but he makes no pretence that tax-payers could be off the hook, if real progress is to be made in his specialised field of preventing disease. The coalition government takes some flak for its continuing commitment to raising the level of foreign aid as a proportion of GDP. Bill Gates is firmly on the side of David Cameron and his ministers. His own money is not enough.
And we finish with another piece of praise for Britain. We are talking about the world economy and generally Gates is quite positive about the year ahead: “I think we face some headwinds but overall I am optimistic.” Does he think the politicians are getting in the way?“In the case of the US, yes!
“In the UK system when someone gets elected, for better or worse their plan gets put into place.” In America, Gates points out, the system of divided government has brought such executive power to a juddering halt. Americans are proud of their constitution: it’s striking to see one of the most personally successful Americans in history looking across the Atlantic and thinking Olde England does it better.
His children may never have iPods but Bill Gates, in all other areas, is a rational optimist with a pragmatic moderate take on the world. He is devoid of bombast and self-regard. A model multibillionaire.
Bill Gates is delivering The Richard Dimbleby Lecture 2013. Watch it on BBC1 on Tuesday at 10:35pm